A poet’s ‘Hope’ and the rites of dying


Jason Shinder’s posthumous poetry collection “Stupid Hope” (Graywolf: 76 pp., $15 paper) opens with a Hindu proverb: “No disease like hope.” It’s a telling point of entry, for at the heart of the writing here is the tension between loss and a kind of measured exuberance, between the inevitability of deterioration and the temporary solace of the everyday. That makes sense, I suppose, since many of these poems were composed while Shinder was battling lymphoma and leukemia. (He died in April 2008 at age 52.) Yet even in the earlier material, these oppositions emerge.

“Just when it seemed my mother couldn’t bear / one more needle, one more insane orange pill,” he observes in “Living,” “my sister, in silence, stood at the end / of the bed and slowly rubbed her feet / . . . And then, with her eyes closed, my mother said / the one or two words the living have for gratefulness; / which is a kind of forgetting, with a sense / of what it means to be alive long enough / to love someone: Thank you, she said.” This is poetry that peels back the veneer of convention to take on the conundrums underneath.

Where “Stupid Hope” really shimmers is in the work Shinder produced post-diagnosis, when his mortality had come to the fore. “I remember the shame I felt after the news / of the illness that I was not as lovable / as I thought,” he admits in “Afterwards,” a meditation on the psychology of illness that moves from desperation to “a kind of beauty” in nine spare lines.


The idea is that disease -- or, more accurately, dying -- offers its own rites of passage, to which we must pay attention if we are to remain fully alive. Why? “Because,” Shinder writes in “The Party,” a searing riff on the unavoidability of leave-taking, “it hurts / to say goodbye, to pull your body out of the warm water; / to step out of the pocket of safety, clinging to what you knew, / or what you thought you knew about yourself and others. / That’s how it is, that’s it, throwing your jacket over your shoulders / like a towel and saying goodbye Victoria goodbye Sophie goodbye / Lili goodbye sweetie take care be well hang in there see you soon.”

-- David L. Ulin